By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
With a wily flute (or three) trilling-rising soft and warm like some ghost-breath of Astral Weeks' wounded orchestrations does amber-voiced Episcopalian troubadour Sufjan Stevens first invoke the subject of Illinois, his 22-song tone poem to the Land of Lincoln. In 2003, Stevens released Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State, embarking from his home state on a mission to give each of the 50 states (no word on Puerto Rico) its own album-length tribute. Unless he picks up the pace or life expectancy patterns change dramatically, he will not finish this series. Anyway, Illinois is number two. Being just another state Sufjan made a record about might make the fine people of Illinois feel a little less than special--or it might if the record weren't so beautiful, if it didn't cast its gaze on the last 200 years of Illinois life with such heartbreaking reverence, or, if it weren't the best pop record you'll hear this year.
By beginning the album with a haunting wreck of a piano-pop ballad called "Concerning the UFO Sighting near Highland, Illinois,"--(Highland, population 8,500, is located 35 miles from St. Louis, Missouri, is sister city of Sursee, Switzerland; as its official website states, it "has a long history of being a progressive municipality, successfully blending industry within a small town atmosphere," and has reportedly played host to UFO phenomena)--Stevens lets on right away that he's not taking a linear route to his portrayal. He's not getting all junior high civics class diorama on us, attempting to extend from Lincoln's great height(s) to R. Kelly's closet-trapped pathos in the space of a shoebox. This is a people's emotional history, the main story but as told through letters and footnotes and snapshots. On "Concerning..." we get an eyewitness account of sky-mystery, of flashing lights in formation over Madison County. Stevens's voice, a minute and a half in, arcs in a sotto-voce falsetto mystic wow. Stevens's songs are often first-person narratives licensed with imagination and woven with loose (literal and affective) geography. Others are third-person depictions of events already well documented. Illinois webs legend, lore, fun facts, diary pages, and Chicago Sun Times headlines pulled from microfiche.
Stevens admits to only a passing familiarity with the place of which he sings, but pulls from august sources. While fellow Chi-town cheerleader Carl Sandburg's influence is both cited and audible, not just in lyric ode, but as a dream-guest mentoring and haranguing the young singer in Part II of "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!" kicking muse-science like "Even in his heart/The devil/Has to know the water level/Are you writing from the heart?/Are you writing from the heart?" But Stevens's Ill-literate muses are numerous: On "Jacksonville," he drops Vernon RQ Fernandes's history of the city like it's quiz-bowl finals, citing everything from the first state schools for the blind and deaf (1840s) to the standing debate since the 1825 founding of the city as to whether the exact Jackson the 'ville is named for was (then General) Andrew Jackson or prominent preacher/former slave A.W. Jackson. On "The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts," the stoic narrative metaphor about a "man of steel" pays ode to Saul Bellow's hallowed axis of masculinist self-examination and spiritually rooted regard for the ordinary. "The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders" forgoes the America-softly-dying routine and instead pedals an anti-imperialism vision of frontier life--the hope of a young country, lofted by belief in God's providence and Lincoln's prairie-born heart.
The further pleasures of Illinois come from its refined, precise craftsmanship. While Stevens is widely cited as a banjo player, he's also handy with recorder, flute, oboe, glockenspiel, guitars, vibraphone, triangle, and church organ. His banjo playing is more Kermit on a log than Earl Scruggs; really his paramount gift is as a composer-arranger. On "Chicago," the verses percolate and pulse with urgent organ and peekaboo vibraphone, then a sudden sweep of strings, and the chorus swells into a summer hymn supported by nine different instruments and a chorus of (what sounds like) eight honey-voiced virgins slinging aaahh'd melody heaven-high, the refrain cut with a humbled admission: "I made a lot of mistakes/In my mind/All things go/All things go." While most orchestral pop uses Pet Sounds as its exclusive template, Stevens's propensity for the gorgeous overwhelm and his ability to pull back to just voice, banjo, and trumpet without losing propulsion is closer to Motown's Holland-Dozier-Holland (or Phil Spector on a punx budget) than loco-genius Brian Wilson. On "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!" he partners the Cure's "Close to You" and The Latin Side of Vince Guaraldi in an easy rondo, the hook carried by a glockenspiel solo, over/under quick verses about the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition that read like the apocalyptic postscript to Petula Clark's "Downtown." Clearly, the dude is not fucking around.
Ultimately what ties these chronicles together is what Stevens does best--ornamenting the songs with singular details, emotional points-of-interest to draw you into his scenes. Deeply and suddenly, you are there. Amidst the fusing of the ecclesiastical and the vaguely erotic--"When the light pressed up/Against your shoulder blade/I could see what you were reading," he sings on "Casimir Pulaski Day," a teen-virgin love story cut short by fatal cancer and Christian sex guilt. Or you're alongside John Wayne Gacy's victims--"They were boys/With their cars/Summer jobs," Stevens explains, following the line with a tremulous "Oh my God!" rendered for a full measure in a tender, quivering falsetto and capped, startlingly, with a caveat that indicts us all: "In my best behavior/I am really just like him/Look below the floorboards/For the secrets I have hid." Here and not only here Stevens, as wrapped up in these songs and tales as we are, dismisses storyteller distance and pulls us in tighter.